Opinion

Anatole Kaletsky

Forget the drama: A solution for Crimea

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 28, 2014 03:29 UTC

President Vladimir Putin has disastrously miscalculated and Russia now faces deeper isolation, tougher sanctions and greater economic hardship than at any time since the Cold War. So declared President Obama after the NATO summit in Brussels.

European leaders have sounded even tougher than Obama, though less specific. Some whose countries lie far from Russia — for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron — have whipped themselves into a fury reminiscent of King Lear: “I will do such things — what they are, yet I know not, but they shall be the terrors of the earth.”

For more specificity we must turn to pundits. Geopolitical experts have predicted global anarchy because of the violation of postwar borders; economists have warned of crippling trade wars as European financial sanctions collide with Russian energy counter-measures, and eminent financial analysts have argued that investors and businesses are dangerously under-pricing enormous geopolitical risks.

Yet Putin seems unperturbed by these threats — and financial markets seem to agree with him. Since the Crimean referendum in mid-March, stock markets around the world have rebounded to almost their record highs, and the ruble and the Moscow stock exchange have been among the world’s strongest markets. Investors seem to have accepted the Russian annexation of Crimea as a fairly harmless fait accompli, with no major consequences for global prosperity or even for Europe.

Markets do not always get politics right. But in this case there are persuasive reasons for putting more faith in the calm financial judgment than in dramatic headlines and belligerent political rhetoric.

Osborne: Stealth convert to ‘Keynesian Thatcherism’

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 20, 2014 18:46 UTC

Britain’s government budget released this week is not a statement of economic policy. It is a program for winning next year’s general election.

In this sense, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne’s speech was a natural development from the 2013 Budget, which launched Britain’s current economic recovery. I was one of the few analysts to perceive the remarkable transformation of the British economy that immediately resulted from last year’s budget because what Osborne did was deliberately obscured by what he said.

Osborne’s mantra last year was “you can’t cure debt with more debt.” Yet he did precisely that with his audacious plan to provide $198 billion (£120 billion) in government guarantees for additional mortgage borrowing.

Janet Yellen’s moment

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 18, 2014 15:37 UTC

When Janet Yellen chairs her first meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee Tuesday and Wednesday, she will be presented with a once-in-a-generation opportunity that even her predecessors in the world’s most powerful economic position have rarely enjoyed.

Not only can Yellen alter the guidance on interest rates with which the FOMC has been steering global financial markets. Beyond that she could do something far more profound and exciting: transform an entire generation’s way of thinking about economics, market forces and the role of government in achieving and maintaining prosperity.

To start with the obvious, Yellen will almost certainly change or simply abolish the unemployment “threshold” of 6.5 percent announced early last year as a reference point for the FOMC to start considering the possibility of higher interest rates — perhaps setting a threshold of 5 percent or so. More radically, she could supplement the objective of lower unemployment with a range of other indicators that will need to improve before the Federal Reserve even considers any monetary tightening: for example, accelerating gross domestic product growth; strengthening productivity trends and eliminating the excess capacity in many industries that is now discouraging investment, hiring and productivity growth, as well as holding down corporate pricing power.

Japan as the crisis next time

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 14, 2014 15:16 UTC

Which major economy is most likely to disappoint expectations this year, and perhaps even cause a financial crisis big enough to break the momentum of global economic recovery? The usual suspects are China and southern Europe. But in my view the most likely culprit will be Japan.

While Japan no longer attracts much attention these days, it is still the world’s third-largest economy, with a gross domestic product equal to France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal combined. Its industries still pose the main competitive challenge to U.S., European and Korean manufacturers, and its regional weight is still sufficient to trigger financial crises across the whole of Asia — as it did in 1997.

To make matters worse, the Japanese government bond market is in an enormous financial bubble that could burst catastrophically if Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s audacious economic program is seen to have failed.

Markets already see a Putin win

Anatole Kaletsky
Mar 6, 2014 21:24 UTC

Oscar Wilde described marriage as the triumph of hope over experience. In finance and geopolitics, by contrast, experience must always prevail over hope, and realism over wishful thinking.

A grim case in point is the confrontation between Russia and the West in Ukraine. What makes this conflict so dangerous is that U.S. and EU policy seems to be motivated entirely by hope and wishful thinking. Hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin will “see sense” — or at least be deterred by the threat of sanctions to Russia’s economic interests and the personal wealth of his oligarch friends. Wishful thinking about “democracy and freedom” inevitably overcoming dictatorship and military bullying.

Investors and businesses cannot afford to be so sentimental. Though we should never forget Nathan Rothschild’s advice at the battle of Waterloo — “buy on the sound of gunfire” — the market response to this week’s events in Ukraine makes sense only if we believe that Russia has won.

The case against a Chinese financial crisis

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 24, 2014 17:13 UTC

A severe slowdown in China is viewed as among the greatest risks facing the world economy this year, and Thursday’s dismal news on Chinese manufacturing output exacerbated these fears. But the really important news from Beijing pointed in the opposite direction: Bank lending in China, instead of slowing dramatically as many economists had expected, accelerated in January to its fastest growth in four years.

This means China is unlikely to act as a brake on the global economy in the months ahead — despite the recent weak manufacturing figures. It also suggests that predictions of a credit crunch or financial crisis in China will likely prove wrong — or at least premature.

To welcome stronger bank lending in China is not to deny that credit growing at double the gross domestic product growth is unsustainable and will ultimately have to be curbed. The Chinese authorities themselves clearly believe this. The government and the central bank want to reduce credit growth and to replace the unregulated, opaque “shadow lending” system with properly supervised, well-capitalized modern banks.

Yellen looks toward a Keynesian approach

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 13, 2014 19:18 UTC

This has been a banner week for the world economy, inspired largely by events in the United States.

In Washington, the first congressional testimony from Janet Yellen in her position as new Federal Reserve Board chairwoman reassured and impressed two notoriously petulant audiences: Tea Party congressmen, who had assembled a posse of hostile witnesses to attack the Fed’s “easy money” policies; and panicky Wall Street investors, who had spent the previous month swooning on fears that monetary policies might not be easy enough.

The significance of Yellen’s testimony lay not in the fact that she was a bit more “dovish” than former Chairman Ben Bernanke, or seemed more committed to the new central bankers’ fad for “forward guidance,” as opposed to “quantitative easing.” More striking, if subtle, was the change in economic philosophy that Yellen represented.

Behind the wave of market anxiety

Anatole Kaletsky
Feb 6, 2014 23:33 UTC

What has caused the sudden anxiety attack that overwhelmed financial markets after the New Year? We may find out the answer at 8.30 on Friday morning, Eastern Standard Time.

Almost all agree that the market turmoil has been linked to alarming events in several emerging economies — including Turkey, Thailand, Argentina and Ukraine — that has spilled over into concerns about more important economies, such as China, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia and Brazil.

But why has near-panic hit so many emerging markets at the same time?

There seem to be four broad explanations. Whether this current volatility marks the end of the straight-line ascent in asset prices that started in March 2009, or whether it is just another opportunity to “buy on dips,” will largely depend on the relative importance of each of these factors.

A central banker’s ‘license to lie’

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 30, 2014 21:43 UTC

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who retires this week as the world’s most powerful central banker, cannot be trusted.

Neither can Janet Yellen, who will succeed him this weekend at the Federal Reserve.

And neither can Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England; Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, or any of their counterparts at the central banks of Turkey, Argentina, Ukraine and so on.

Venice’s renaissance shows a path for European revival

Anatole Kaletsky
Jan 23, 2014 15:45 UTC

“I have seen the future and it works,” said Lincoln Steffens, a left-wing American journalist, on returning from the Soviet Union in 1919. After a weekend in Venice at a seminar organized by the Italian ambassador to Britain, I found myself struck by the same thought, which is not exactly the reflection that the world’s most perfectly preserved medieval city is supposed to inspire. Venice is a clichéd metaphor for “Old Europe” — a sclerotic old continent fixated on its past and now retiring to become a museum society, destined gradually to sink beneath the sea. But should we perhaps be inspired, not depressed, by the thought of Venice, the ultimate “museum city,” as a microcosm of Italy and even of Europe as a whole? After all, Venice is still standing, not sinking into the sea, and after 500 years of supposed decline it is still stunningly beautiful. Maybe Italy and Europe, instead of sinking, will also prove their resilience and make a comeback?

An event this week that pointed to this conclusion was the deal on electoral reform announced by Italy’s two biggest political parties: Matteo Renzi’s governing socialists and the opposition led by Silvio Berlusconi. This pact, which should create stronger majority governments, was significant — not just for Italy but for all of Europe, because quite modest policy reforms would be sufficient to revive the Italian economy and transform economic policy debate across Europe. For example, a broad consensus now exists for moderate labor reforms, for big reductions in the employment tax burden, for dismantling overlapping layers of government bureaucracy and for shifting welfare spending from over-generous pensions to education, training and active measures to help the unemployed. But none of these “supply-side” reforms would achieve useful results unless supported by a stimulus from monetary and fiscal policy.

The European Central Bank understands this, and even the German government’s resistance to economic stimulus is eroding. So if a stable and democratically credible Italian government showed willingness to seriously implement supply side programs, the ECB would surely respond with strong measures to expand credit, especially small business loans. And given the importance of small businesses to Italy, an aggressive program of officially-backed SME lending could have a similar electrifying effect on the Italian economy as it did last year in Britain, with government-guaranteed mortgage loans. In turn, a rebound of economic activity in Italy would have big effects on business and financial confidence in Spain, Greece, Portugal and France, as well as quite possibly transforming the German economic policy debate.

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